“I worship the primeval Lord, Govinda. Ganesha always holds His lotus feet upon the pair of tumuli protruding from his elephant head in order to obtain power for his function of destroying all obstacles on the path of progress in the three worlds.” (Brahma-samhita 5.50)
One of the more controversial aspects to the spiritual traditions emanating from the Vedas is demigod worship. The impersonalists, those who don’t believe in a God with a form, or those who take the Supreme Absolute Truth to be a giant energy composed of the aggregate total of all spirit, feel that worship of any “god” is on the same level, regardless of the personality in question. The ultimate objective of the impersonalists is to free themselves from attachment, lust, anger, greed, and desire. So whatever method one can adopt to achieve such an end is justified. To this end, they take the worship of various divine figures to be simply a way to understand the impersonal energy known as Brahman. The impersonalists label the practice of meditating on the formless Absolute Truth as nirguna worship and the practice of offering obeisances to and concentrating on a specific qualified divine figure as saguna worship. In this way they take every individual living entity to be God. They believe that every person is an equal part of the divine, but that the presence of this quality is forgotten.
The Vedic tradition is filled with famous and worshipable divine figures such as Lord Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu, Surya, Durga, and Ganesha. The scriptures all say that Vishnu is superior amongst these personalities and that He is the original personality of Godhead. The other exalted figures listed, along with thousands of other elevated personalities, are known as devatas, or demigods. They act as the Lord’s chief ministers. Saying that every elevated personality is on equal footing with Vishnu is akin to denying Vishnu’s supremacy. In this way the impersonalist philosophy is one that rejects the notion of an Almighty God. Yet the controversy relating to demigods doesn’t end here. Even amongst those who do acknowledge the supremacy of Vishnu and His various non-different expansions such as Krishna, Rama, and Narasimha, there is still the adherence to the practice of demigod worship. At least in this age, devotees of Vishnu, who are known as Vaishnavas, generally don’t worship the demigods explicitly. This creates a sort of clash with those pious persons who do take to worshiping the demigods. So which side is correct?
“Men of small intelligence [alpa-medhasam] worship the demigods, and their fruits are limited and temporary. Those who worship the demigods go to the planets of the demigods, but My devotees ultimately reach My supreme planet.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.23)
To find the answer, we can look to none other than Vishnu Himself. Since the original Godhead instituted all forms of religion and their various practices, it would make sense that He would be the one to settle any and all disputes. Another advantage we have is that Vishnu has kindly appeared on earth many times throughout the course of history. His most famous teachings appear in a book called the Bhagavad-gita. This work is a poem containing words of instruction offered by Vishnu on a battlefield around five thousand years ago. At the time, Vishnu appeared on earth in the guise of a human being named Krishna. Most Vedic texts list Krishna as an incarnation of Vishnu, while works such as the Brahma-samhita state that Krishna is actually the original form of Godhead and that Vishnu is merely a non-different manifestation of the divine. In either case, Vishnu and Krishna are the same, so when Krishna provides instruction, it is the same as if Vishnu were providing them, and vice versa.
Though these instructions given by Krishna were comprehensive and intricate, He made brief mention of the demigods and those who take to worshiping them. In one section, Krishna mentions that sacrifice to the demigods is important, for through this practice, one can achieve all necessities in life such as rain, food, shelter, etc. At the same time, the Lord downplays the results achieved from worshiping the demigods, calling them temporary and providing of fleeting happiness. He also says that those who are less intelligent, those with less brain substance, take to worshiping the demigods.
“In charge of the various necessities of life, the demigods, being satisfied by the performance of yajna [sacrifice], supply all necessities to man. But he who enjoys these gifts, without offering them to the demigods in return, is certainly a thief.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 3.12)
Yet from Krishna’s activities, we see that He even took to worshiping various devatas during His time on earth. Moreover, the same can be said of Lord Rama, Vishnu’s avatara who appeared on earth thousands of years before Krishna. Formerly, man was generally more pious than he is today, so most people spent the majority of their time engaged in religious affairs. Worship of the demigods was a central part of religious life, so everyone who was pious took to such activity.
So is Krishna contradicting Himself by calling demigod worshipers unintelligent? The key distinction lies in the mode of worship. As an example, we may offer service to our boss during some part of the day, and then offer service to our family members later on. The actual offering of service is not as important as our priority system, i.e. what we view as the most important activity. For most of us, we offer service to our boss so that we can ultimately offer service to something or someone else. In this way the boss is rarely viewed as the ultimate object of worship, for our efforts are focused either on ourselves, our family, our friends, or the Supreme Lord. This last entity is the most important. As long as we view the ultimate objective in life to be the worship and love of the Supreme Lord, then all our activities will support this conclusion. If we worship the demigods as part of our worship of Krishna, then it is certainly sanctioned. The unintelligent, however, take to worshiping the demigods either as their supreme dharma in life, or as a means of satisfying some object of worship other than Krishna.
An example would be helpful in understanding this distinction. While Krishna or Vishnu is the original form of Godhead, Lord Shiva and Lord Brahma are very close runners up. They are guna-avataras of Vishnu, or expansions of the Lord who manage the material affairs. Since they come under the subjection of the laws of nature, they cannot be considered the same in quality as Vishnu. Since God creates material nature, He cannot be subject to her stringent laws. This fact remains true even when the Lord personally appears on earth. For example, the sun offers its rays and light to all of creation, regardless of the cleanliness or impurity of the objects it touches. The sun can suck up moisture from an ocean or from a puddle of urine and still remain pure throughout. In a similar manner, the Supreme Lord can contact material nature yet still remain free from any laws of karma.
Though Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva are part of the material world, they are still highly exalted. They are Vishnu’s chief ministers. Lord Shiva’s wife, Mother Parvati [Durga], is considered the controller of material nature. She is the “mother” in Mother Nature. Lord Shiva is also a great Vaishnava; he spends all his time meditating on the lotus feet of Vishnu. His favorite form of Vishnu is Lord Rama. When Lord Shiva isn’t meditating on Lord Rama, he is describing the Lord’s glories to his wife. In this way Shiva and Parvati are two of the most exalted personalities in the world. Not surprisingly, their son, Lord Ganesha, is equally as respectable. He is so pious and pure that before any Vedic ritual is performed, obeisances are first offered to him. This is a special benediction granted to Ganesha by Vishnu Himself.
These facts highlight the intimate relationship that exists between the devatas and Vishnu. The two entities are always in line with each other, with one providing the orders, and the other following them. Yet not every person will take to worshiping Vishnu. The result of Vishnu worship is liberation, or the end of the cycle of birth and death. Many don’t want this liberation, for they would rather continue to enjoy material nature. For such people, worship of the demigods is recommended as a way of maintaining a connection with spiritual life. The devatas can grant material benedictions to anyone who pleases them. This is the power granted to them by Lord Vishnu. The Supreme Lord is the most munificent entity after all. He has no desire to take people away from their happy place. He grants the conditioned souls complete independence in this regard. The caveat, however, is that if one wants to remain in the material world, they are forced to live by its rules. These rules are governed by the system of karma, which is completely fair and just. One person may act in a certain way to meet a certain desire, but others have a similar right to act in their own self-interest. When these interests collide, as they most certainly will, chaos, despair, defeat, rejection, lamentation, anger, and so many other undesirable side effects will result.
Such laws don’t exist in the spiritual world; hence attention to bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, is seen as the foremost spiritual practice. By regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, and following the other processes of devotional life aimed at pleasing Krishna, one can ascend to the spiritual sky after their current life is over. Those who worship the demigods as their ultimate spiritual practice are considered less intelligent because any material reward, regardless of whether it is desired or undesired, can only lead to flickering happiness. Moreover, material rewards keep one bound to material nature. This bondage inevitably leads to the aforementioned undesirable situations. Hence anyone who would consider such a situation to be palatable certainly must be considered unintelligent.
So if this type of demigod worship is not recommended, then what kind is? The Brahma-samhita, one of the most concise and powerful Vedic texts, provides the answer. The demigods are most certainly acknowledged in this wonderful book of devotion to Krishna, but they are described in the proper context. Lord Ganesha is described as the powerful entity who removes obstacles from the path of those who worship him. This boon-giving power is obtained through the mercy of Govinda, which is another name for Krishna. If we worship Lord Ganesha to help remove the obstacles in the path of our spiritual pursuits, then this most certainly must be considered an intelligent activity.
“O Mother Ganga, protected by you, may this son of the intelligent and great King Dasharatha honor the order of His father. After having completed fourteen years of living in the forest, He, along with His brother and myself, will certainly return here again. Then, O beloved Devi, having safely arrived here again, I will joyfully worship you, O Ganga, who are capable of fulfilling every desire [sarva-kama].” (Sita Devi praying to Mother Ganga, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 52.83-85)
For those growing up in a family which has a deep-rooted tradition in Vedic culture, demigod worship is regularly adhered to. This was the case with the Ikshvaku family, a dynasty of kings who ruled the world many thousands of years ago. Lord Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu, appeared as a prince in this dynasty a long time ago. His beautiful and chaste wife, Sita Devi, was wholly dedicated to virtue and the traditions of Vedic culture. She knew of all the proper rituals and functions to perform, and all the various devatas that needed to be worshiped. One time Lord Rama and Sita even worshiped Lord Vishnu on the night prior to Rama’s installation as the new king. The next day, however, Rama would be sent to the forest instead of becoming the new king. While roaming the forests, Sita would often pray to various sacred rivers and trees, which are also considered devatas in the Vedic tradition, and ask them to ensure Rama’s safe return to His kingdom at the expiry of His exile term. Sita was so wise that she didn’t initially take to worshiping these demigods, but rather she made a deal with them. She told them that if they came through for Rama, who was Vishnu, then she would worship them to their hearts’ content. Eventually all did end well, so Sita made good on her promise and regularly offered worship to Mother Ganga and various other demigods.
If we already have family traditions relating to demigod worship, there is no need to give them up. These traditions can be thought of as family heirlooms, magical keys which are passed down from generation to generation. For those who don’t grow up in this tradition, acquiring this type of key is not necessary, for worshipers of Krishna are bestowed the master key which unlocks every door, including the one to the spiritual world. In the performance of all of our activities, we should keep Vishnu’s satisfaction at the forefront of the mind. The demigods are the Lord’s closest aides and servants, so showing respect to them certainly will please Vishnu as well. In this age of Kali, there isn’t much time for religious practice, so whatever devotional efforts we do take up should be aimed directly at Krishna. Since devotional service satisfies the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the demigods automatically become satisfied as well. Goswami Tulsidas, the wonderful saint and exalted author of beautiful poetry devoted to Lord Rama, would often invoke the names of Lord Shiva, Mother Parvati, and Lord Ganesha at the beginning of his poems. He asked them not for any personal benefit, but rather to help him in his pursuit to please Rama.
In this way we see that there is no need for controversy as it relates to demigod worship. The devatas are certainly individuals just like the rest of us. They are not imaginary figures or elevated representations of Brahman. Since they are dear servants of the Supreme Lord, there is no reason to disrespect them. One should understand that any and all rewards received in life should be used for Vishnu’s satisfaction. This is the secret known to the bhaktas, the devotees of the Lord. They have been kind enough to share this secret through their teachings and their actions. We should make good use of this information by acting upon it.